The best off-piste Alpine areas

Karen Tait investigates the options for skiing househunters who want less crowded resorts off the beaten piste

The French Alps are renowned all over the globe for their world-class ski resorts. They range from traditional villages to purpose-built ski stations, offering everything from gentle green runs for beginners to exhilarating black runs and off-piste which would challenge even the most experienced and skilful of skiers and boarders. The apr�s-ski is almost as famous, and there is a wide range of amenities on offer. Some resorts are equally busy in the summer, offering hiking, mountain-biking and other outdoor activities, making them a year-round destination.

As great as the Alps are, however, there are alternatives in France for those looking for cheaper property (demand almost always exceeds supply in the Alps, due in part to a lack of building land, keeping prices high) and cheaper skiing combined with lower-key, less busy resorts.

These resorts also offer a different take on the ski scene – perhaps one where mountain life is less wholly focused on skiing, or where downhill skiing shares more of an equal billing with cross-country skiing and other wintersports such as tobogganing, snowshoeing, ice-skating and dog-sledging. There may also be easier access to everyday towns and cities, offering culture and entertainment on a different scale from mountain villages.

After the Alps, the second key ski area in France is the Pyr�n�es, home to a number of popular resorts, but there are also the Massif Central, Vosges and Jura ranges to consider.

THE PYR�N�ES

Some 400km long and 70km wide, the Pyr�n�es run along the border between France and Spain and are home to around 38 small ski resorts, with around 1,000km of marked pistes. They range from traditional villages such as Bar�ges – one of the oldest French ski resorts – to purpose-built stations at Superbagn�res and Ax Trois Domaines.

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The biggest ski area is Tourmalet Bar�ges La Mongie in the Hautes-Pyr�n�es department, with 42 ski lifts, 69 pistes covering 100km, and reaching a height of 2,500m. Not far from Tourmalet is Cauterets, a traditional town that has developed as a ski resort, with 24 pistes. Saint Lary Soulan, close to the Spanish border, has some of the highest Pyrenean runs, up to 2,500m. The resort at Superbagn�res (1,440-2,260m) is accessible by cable car from the town of Luchon.

In the eastern Pyr�n�es, the largest area is Font-Romeu/Pyr�n�es 2000, with 58km of slopes, over 100km of cross-country skiing pistes and 500 snow cannon. Close by, Les Angles has 26 ski lifts, 32 pistes and more than 250 snow cannons.

Resorts in the Pyr�n�es are less well known than their Alpine counterparts, and so they tend to be less crowded – and less expensive, both for skiing and property. On the downside, being at a lower altitude than the Alps means there is a chance of a lack of snow, but with ski cannon on standby it shouldn’t be a problem.

The Pyr�n�es are popular in the summer months too, being ideally suited to outdoor activities such as hiking and cycling. There are also lively spa towns, such as Bar�ges, Bagn�res de Bigore, Cauterets and Luchon.

Airports close to the Pyr�n�es include Perpignan, Carcassonne, Tarbes-Lourdes and Toulouse; you would then need to hire a car to reach the resorts themselves. There is also a good rail network in the area.

On www.francepropertyshop.com, a one-bedroom apartment with ski storage, just a 10-minute drive from the ski station of Peyragudes and the town of Luchon (and 25 minutes from Spain), is for sale for €85,000. A two-bedroom apartment in the same residence is €102,300.

Meanwhile, a ski chalet with flexible accommodation sleeping 10 in Les Angles – just 50m from the nursery slopes and overlooking Lac Matamale – is on the market for €180,000 (www.frenchpropertylinks.com). Ideal for both summer and winter holidays, properties such as these offer good rental potential.

THE MASSIF CENTRAL

The ski areas of the Massif-Central, which cover some 1,300km of pistes, are mainly to be found in Auvergne in central France.

Skiing takes place on extinct volcanoes – the main stations, Le Mont Dore and Besse-Superbesse, are around the Puy de Sancy, and are connected, with around 45km of pistes each and are well-equipped, with cable cars, ski lifts and ski tows, plus there is a snowpark at Mont Dore. Le Lioran is another popular resort with 40km of pistes.

Although there are fewer runs than in the top Alpine resorts, they are surprisingly varied, with gentle slopes for beginners and more challenging terrain for those seeking an adrenalin rush. There are many smaller resorts in the Massif Central, some within easy reach of Vichy, St-Flour, St-Etienne and Mende, although they may only open for a short time each winter, depending on conditions. La Loge des Gardes is the closest resort to Paris,just 380km from the city.

In summer, the Massif Central is a vast playground for lovers of the great outdoors, and the famed spa towns, with their therapeutic volcanic waters, are particularly busy. The regional capital, Clermont-Ferrand is definitely worth a visit.

Although Auvergne has been relatively difficult to reach in the past, Flybe now offers services from the UK to Clermont-Ferrand airport. For drivers, it is around 700km from Calais to Clermont-Ferrand.

On France Property Shop, a recently renovated five-storey house in a spa town in Puy de D�me, 10 minutes from a ski resort, is for sale for €194,400 – not a lot of money for three letting apartments, two double suites for chambre d’hotes, and a three-bedroom private living accommodation. For those with smaller budgets, a renovated two-room apartment in a mountainous village near Mont Dore and close to local skiing, just 15 minutes from the A89 motorway, is for sale for €67,200 (www.capifrance.co.uk).

THE VOSGES

The Vosges mountain range in Lorraine is particularly renowned for its cross-country skiing, although it also offers over 1,000km of downhill pistes.

The largest ski area is La Bresse-Hohneck, which, despite peaking at a relatively low 1,366m, offers some 27 ski slopes, thanks to 280 snow cannon. La Bresse has the biggest floodlit ski area in Europe, with skiing from 6am until 10pm. The other main resort is G�rardmer, with 20 slopes. They are popular with day-trippers from Nancy, Metz, Strasbourg and Luxembourg.

There are also smaller resorts at Champ de Feu, Le Lac Blanc, Saint Maurice-sur-Moselle, Bussang, Ventron, Le Valtin, Xonrupt-Longemer and Ballon d’Alsace. The gentle hills of the Vosges are ideal for beginners, although experts will find them less challenging. Cross-country skiing is more popular than downhill, with 300km of trails winding through the forests.

In summer, the Ballons des Vosges regional nature park is equally busy, with its scenic forests and glacial lakes providing a breathtaking setting for activities such as hiking, climbing and mountain-biking. Pretty Alsatian villages, the town of Colmar, and the cities of Strasbourg and Basel are not far away. The Vosges are the closest mountains and ski resorts to the Channel ports (about 580km from Calais to G�rardmer) and the nearest airports are Strasbourg and Basel-Mulhouse.

In La Bresse, a one-bedroom apartment is for sale at €64,000 and a five-bed chalet-style house is €262,500 (www.propertyindex.com). The Domaine des Trois Lacs residence in Gerardmer offers two/three-room apartments in a converted barn-style industrial property from €86,800 (www.capifrance.co.uk).

THE JURA

The department of Jura is located in the Franche-Comt� region, and its mountains, which run along the northern border of Switzerland, are closer to Geneva airport than the Portes-du Soleil ski domain in the Alps.

Slightly higher than the Vosges, the Jura is also known for its cross-country skiing, offering more than 2,500km of trails, including the legendary 300km Grande Travers�e du Jura. Authentic villages are another attraction, along with tranquil scenery.

Downhill skiers are best off heading for the resorts of M�tabief, Les Rousses or Monts Jura, which have all seen significant investment into their infrastructure. In the heart of the Haut-Jura regional nature park, the Les Rousses area is made up of four villages (Les Rousses, Pr�manon, Lamoura and Bois d’Amont) and covers five massifs, including the highest point in the ski area at Le Massif de la Dole (1680m). In the south of the range, Monts Jura offers almost 50km of ski runs and 120km of cross-country routes. It is made up of three ski areas: L�lex-Crozet (15 minutes from Geneva), Mijoux–La Faucille and Menthi�res, with 50km of mixed pistes, mostly through the forest but also on the bare ridges. Ski-buses run between the different sites. M�tabief in the north of the range is known for its stunning views. It has 26 ski runs, with 40km of downhill skiing and over 270km of Nordic trails.

The Jura also offers snowshoeing trails, bordercross courses, a snow park and a year-round sledging centre on the Col de la Faucille. The Jura resorts are a good alternative to the Alps when snow conditions are favourable, and snow cannon help out when they’re not. In fact, it is not unknown for the snow to be better in Jura than in the Alps. In summer, the Jura is a mountain paradise too, offering hiking, fishing, horse-riding and whole host of other outdoor activities.

Examples of property currently on the market include a studio in L�lex for €40,000 (www.lamontagne-immo.com), a two-room apartment in Les Rousses for €58,000, a studio in M�tabief for €59,000 and a two-bedroom property in a new development in M�tabief for €284,211 (www.century21.fr).